Fall is already in the air here in Evanston, Illinois. In the coming weeks, we will welcome our new students to campus at Northwestern University. It is always an exciting time of the year. It is exciting to be part of the new journey that our students are all beginning. For me, I look forward to working with our new and talented MBA class at the Kellogg School of Management. Heading to college (or back to college in the case of our MBAs and graduate students) is an important venture and investment in one’s life. It is also a period that moves by much more quickly than anticipated. Reflecting on what worked for me and my students, I offer some points and reminders to help incoming and returning college students get the most out of their venture and investment.
Although some programs like pre-medicine are really trying to separate students, I find that most universities and professors want to see their students excel. And when students struggle, it is often self-inflicted and due to poor organization – not following directions on an assignment, not meeting deadlines, not doing the reading, not doing the simple stuff. Not all of college is simple, but there is no need to let the simple and small stuff trip you up. Get Organized! Make a list of to dos each day. Knock those out. Complete tasks early. Get up early – there is so much that can be done before lunch! Ask for help before the deadline. In many ways, college is preparing you for work and life management. Self organization is critical (and not necessarily that hard). Also, don’t expect others to organize things for you.
Few college students will know upon entering college what career or job they will take. College is a place to learn and grow. However, you are not growing if you are not working and challenging yourself. Indeed, it should push you and even at times hurt a bit. Loading up on easy classes will make for an easy semester and result in a high GPA, but did it advance you? Did you grow? Probably not. Companies are looking for graduates, more than ever, that can handle complexity, and STEM careers are more attractive than ever for that reason. Take classes that allow you to contribute in these expanding markets. A wise man once told me upon my entry to college, “Work hard for the next 10 years and you can relax for the rest of your life. Relax for the next 10 years and you will work hard for the rest of life.” It still holds true today. The more you put in, the more you will get out.
Explore and Take Risks
The wonderful thing of a university is that it is full of great classes and professors. Many students come to me and ask my advice on which classes to take or if they should retake statistics or finance of something that they already know. My advice is always, take new things and things that allow your to explore. If you already know an area well, consider exploring it in greater depth or try a new topic. I greatly enjoyed my classes in history, art, architecture, and philosophy. Each has made my travels more enjoyable and brought richness to appreciating life. Each also has added an ability to work with and communicate with people from many cultures. So, take classes outside of your major, take those that you can use to explore genuine interests and enjoy that special opportunity!
Get to Know People…No Really!
The most troubling effect of our social media and mobile world is that many people have grown uncomfortable with in person communications. At Kellogg, professors invite their students to lunch for the sole purpose of building relationships with our students. It is the most enjoyable part of teaching – to get to know our students outside of the classroom and for them to get to know us. The skill and art in getting to know people is important in leadership roles of all forms. Consider college an opportunity to do that.
I teach many lab classes at Kellogg, in which student teams work on real-world projects. These popular classes are a great opportunity for our students. Realizing that many teams struggled to click, I now require all teams to meet over a meal and to swap personal stories. The impact has been highly positive on the team dynamics and many teams share with me that they continue to meet long after the class. Be that person that reaches out to get to know others. They will appreciate that in you and look to you as a leader.
The time spent in getting to know others will be greatly important in team work, as we conduct it in our MBA program at Kellogg, but also in overcoming challenges and difficulties in college and afterwards. You might even meet someone really special with whom you’d like to share your life!
Learn New Life Skills
A wise professor of mine at Cornell University offered me this same sage advice – Learn New Life Skills! College is not only about preparing for your first job or even your career, it is about preparing for life. Universities offer many great opportunities to develop new skills, for life. Take a class in music appreciation, learn a foreign language, learn a programming language, visit other countries, learn about science and the body, take a geology trip, take a cooking class, build something, grow something, and for MBAs, sell something or start something special. The ability to pick up such skills is much harder once work and family set in. Identify a few skills that you would like to develop and take classes to grow those skills.
Develop Great Presentation Skills
In recent years, it seems that less emphasis has been placed on critical presentation skills. Indeed every profession that I can imagine involves some level of important presentation. Doctors are expected to have good bedside manners. Business consultants are expected to make compelling presentations to their clients. And, the chance opportunity to meet with the CEO or a possible client is most likely to occur in person with little to no warning. An observation from my career is that those people most entrusted with working on top projects or with top clients are those who have greatest presentation skills. Few firms will honestly state that, but the bias is inherent in how we view a good presentation as the sign of a better leader or more thoughtful person. Gain that advantage! Develop a natural and comfortable style presenting your ideas. Take classes in speech and speaking. Learn to write in the manner demanded of your career. For MBAs, learn to develop compelling presentations and pay close attention to formatting details. Volunteer to do this on behalf of your team. The team will thank you, and you will be the real beneficiary of the practice in presenting.
Here is the hard and honest truth. With most Americans borrowing to go to college and with graduates (such as MBAs) borrowing even more, the cost of college is a drain on your future earnings. So, it is all the more important to make the most of it. Delayed gratification is really in order. If you are borrowing money to buy a $5 latte each day, that will cost you much more later. For a dollar borrowed at 6% (a common rate at least among graduate students) and paid out after college and at the end of a ten-year payback period, graduates will need to make over $3.45 for that dollar borrowed. That coffee and other expensive luxuries will really impede your lifestyle going forward. Consider alternatives. Can you live with less? Can you spend less? Prioritize those things that are most important. Consider a part-time job to offset costs or to pay for some luxury that you really want. Make a financial plan and stick to it.
Have Fun…by Getting Involved!
College can and should be fun and memorable. This is most likely the case when you are active and involved. Join clubs – but get involved! Start a new club. Help your student club with a new effort. Help your major or program. Meet your professors to learn about opportunities in your field (really, few people come to office hours anymore – you will have no wait). Work to bring special speakers to campus. Invite your friends and family to campus; show them what excites you about your venture and investment. Take classes that bring passion and excitement to your work and studies. Being involved and passionate will allow you to get the most from your time at college.
And if you (or your son or daughter) are coming to the Kellogg School of Management or Northwestern University, stop by and say hello! It would be great to meet you or them in person!
About Russell Walker, Ph.D.
Professor Russell Walker helps companies develop strategies to manage risk and harness value through analytics and Big Data. He is Clinical Associate Professor of Managerial Economics and Decision Sciences at the Kellogg School of Management of Northwestern University. His most recent book, From Big Data to Big Profits: Success with Data and Analytics is published by Oxford University Press (2015), which explores how firms can best monetize Big Data. He is the author of the text Winning with Risk Management (World Scientific Publishing, 2013), which examines the principles and practice of risk management through business case studies.
Professor Walker has developed and taught executive programs on Enterprise Risk, Operational Risk, Corporate Governance, Analytics and Big Data, and Global Leadership. Russell leads the Kellogg PRMIA Complete Course in Executive Education for Risk Management. He founded and teaches the Analytical Consulting Lab, Risk Lab, Global Lab, and Digital Lab, all very popular experiential learning classes at the Kellogg School of Management, which bring Kellogg MBA students together with corporate opportunities focused on data and strategy. He also teaches courses in risk management, analytics, and on strategies in globalization. He was awarded the Kellogg Impact award by Kellogg MBA students for excellence and impact in teaching Enterprise Risk Management in 2011.
He serves on the Scientific and Technical Council for the Menus of Change, an initiative led by the Harvard School of Public Health and the Culinary Institute of America, to develop healthier and more environmentally friendly food choices. He is a former member of the board of the Education and Technology Committee to the Morton Arboretum. He was a board member of the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, where he developed support programs for Hispanic entrepreneurs and worked with US senators on US Latino matters.
He looks forward to the start of school each fall.